From Thailand we flew to Kolkata, India. Yay!
We landed in India and I knew I had arrived in a fascinating country. The heat hit me immediately, especially since we were in a taxi going to central Kolkata from the airport. My best friend spoke to the taxi driver in Urdu and asked him whether it was wise to disclose the fact he was of Pakistani origin to which the taxi man quickly told us it was not.
At least we knew. We arrived near the main tourist street and searched for a hostel, eventually coming across Paradise Guest House. The next day we headed towards New Market, the central market and had a walk around. The streets reminded me of Africa, with people, mainly men, out from early morning on the streets, out on the streets because they had nothing else to do and no job to go to, and it was just too hot for them to stay indoors. Just like Africa, the hustle and bustle was forever present, and in the congested alleys were people selling everything you could imagine, car horns beeping frantically, dogs barking, people gossiping, arguing, rickshaw riders running past, and panting fast under the cruel sun. With all this happening, there was just no space on the streets for pedestrians. The initial shock was the hand pulled rickshaws. Skinny men, whose bodies glistened with perspiration, pulling people along, just as though they were horses, sweating and panting, taking the equivalent of 20p to ride people to the main market, and spending their nights asleep on the street.
It immediately bought up so many thoughts in my mind, it left me wondering what was more cruel - taking a ride and paying the man, or not taking the ride and leaving the man without his money to go buy food with. We took an auto-rickshaw ride to a random part of the city and came across the cricket ground where the tournament was due to take place, but had recently been cancelled. We took a walk along the river bed and met a guy called Dennis from Germany. He invited us on a boat trip along the river which he was going on with his friends Shaswaty and Denise, as it was Shaswaty's birthday. We got onto the boat and the porters used long wooden sticks to push the small boat away from the river bed. After thirty minutes the boat headed back to the land edge, consisting of muddy sludge, which I put my foot straight into. Shaswaty asked for no money in repayment for the trip and we swapped details. A couple of days into our trip, Jassim was due to join us, another friend, which required us collecting him from the same airport we had arrived at.
We got a train to the end of the line, bringing us near to the airport. We then got a cycle-rickshaw to take us on the remainder of the journey. This took forever and we thought we would never arrive, going through all the little streets, the area was quite scenic. Eventually we arrived at the airport, pretty late, but that was no worry since Jassim's plane had not even landed. We eventually found him and got the train back to our area.
That evening we went to New Market and we bumped into Shaswaty and Dennis who were heading for some food, so we joined them. That evening we all planned to meet on the rooftop bar of a flashy hotel and spent the evening enjoying each others company under the flowing stars of India, and I enjoyed some rum and cokes.
The next day we took a hand pulled rickshaw from our hostel to New Market.
Only two of us could fit into the rickshaw, which ended up being me and Jassim. Sohaib walked alongside the rickshaw and after a while had to pick up speed. Sohaib was running alongside the hand held rickshaw trying to keep up with the Kolkatian pulling me and Jassim along. Me and Jassim were in fits of laughter as you tried to run ahead to take photos. The next day we all went for afternoon Chai on a side-street and observed the daily activities of the Kolkatians. As Jassim would say, we were 'absorbing the atmosphere'. After this we bid our farewells to Dennis and Shaswaty and got ready for our long train ride to Delhi.
We left Kolkata and went to Delhi by train. We arrived and took cycle rickshaws from the station to a street full of hostels, Paharganj, located next to New Delhi train station.
This congested dusty street made me go wide eyed in excitement, for it was filled with Camden style clothing, all priced at between 1-2 pounds each. I knew I'd be spending much time there getting some beautiful clothes for myself. It was hot so we rushed to a hostel and settled down, getting over our long train journey. I got some beautiful brown henna done on my arms and legs, which looked pretty gorgeous.
We visited the Jama Masjid, the largest and most stunning mosque in all of India, so a must for our group. It is boasted to be able to hold a staggering 25,000 worshippers. I was made to wear a huge pink gown to cover what little skin I had left exposed of myself, so I felt pretty hot under the covers. Entering bare foot our feed burned on the floor so we found ourselves quickly hopping about to find a cooler mat to walk upon.
The mosque is huge. In front of it is a massive shallow pool in which people can wash their hands, feet and faces before they go pray. Unsurprisingly this was filthy with the dirt from the thousands of people who had used it that day alone. You decided that you wanted to climb soaring tower, which I could imagine would have given some amazing views. Afterwards we took a walk through Chandni Chowk, an incredibly busy market near the Jama Masjid. And someone groped my ass.
We also visited the Red Fort. The Red Fort was constructed by the Emperor Shah Jahan, the creator of the Taj Mahal.
We went inside, entering via the Lahore Gate, which then led to a bazaar selling tourist gifts. Once we got through this we came to the main area, and the place was extremely busy and full of Indian locals, not so much with tourists from outside India. It was a really hot day and so we made sure we looked at everything fast as the heat started to drain away our energy.
We then took the three hour train from Delhi to Agra. We arrived and were harassed by people trying to get us to stay in their hostel. One of the first places we visited was Agra Fort, transported there by horse and carriage. Agra Fort is very similar to Delhi's Red Fort, so I was not too fussed to get in. Both Sohaib and Jassim managed to gain 'local' entrance prices of 10 rupees whilst I was left with a fee of 300 rupees, which I decided not to pay.
Instead I had a well earned rest on the floor outside in the shade, avoiding the 40 degree heat. After that I wanted to go to see the Taj from the other side of the river, and so after some serious hard bargaining with auto-rickshaw riders we were taken to the other side of the river on a hectic auto-rickshaw ride. We walked for a while and came to the area of land behind the Taj Mahal. Desolate and unnoticed, this vast area of land provides the perfect view of the Taj Mahal. Set against a slow flowing river the views cannot be beaten. The best experiences are the ones that were never planned for. To avoid having to make the long trip back round to the area near the Taj we paid a man with a boat a small sum to get us across the river.
The next morning we headed towards the Taj and the scene is breathtaking.
It was slightly overrated but it was still beautiful. Pictures cannot replace the sight to be seen with your own eyes, the entire structure influenced by Persian, Indian and Islamic architectural styles is completely symmetrical. The Taj Mahal was built by Emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. The huge monument, built as an expression of love took over 20 years to be built and had a certain haunting air about it. Inside the Taj is the tombs of Jahan and his wife. Set upon magnificent gardens, added to the beautiful weather and sense of calm in the area the view was breathtaking. We took photographs and gradually walked nearer to the momument itself. Walking past the famous water moment in front of the Taj 'aka' the 'giant swimming pool' as stated by Jamal in Slumdog Millionaire.
Back to Delhi to get a train to Amritsar, home of the Golden Temple. When we arrived in Amritsar we got cycle rickshaws to the area surrounding the Golden Temple, hoping to get accommodation inside the Golden Temple. Unfortunately it was already full so we opted for some externally based accommodation, coming across a friendly cheap hostel 2 minutes walk away, which is where we stayed for the following 4 days.
The Golden Temple is the most significant place of worship for Sikhs. A holy and beautiful place, the temple is made of pure gold and is open twenty four hours a day.
As you come to the entrance gates you are requested to remove your shoes and cover your head. As you enter the main area to the temple you wash your feet in a shallow pool of water and walk down the steps. You are then welcomed by a bewildering sight. Pure gold reflected in the pristine clean water. People are kneeling down preying to the monument. Men are bathing in the holy water. Volunteers are drying the wet floor or cleaning the water. There is singing in the air coming from the Temple. People are walking and talking casually around the grounds of the Temple.
The first night we entered the grounds of the Golden Temple we joined the queue in order to enter the centre part of the Golden Temple. Unsure of what queue to line up in we took our chances.
Eventually we were inside, in the epicentre of this holy place. Three old men are sitting on the floor singing from a text and playing instruments. People are bowing down to prey and give donations. I did too. There is a very spiritual feel to the place. The place is vibrant with colours and smells. We felt privileged to be apart of this. The moment you enter the place you feel instantly calm, the atmosphere is magical.
We then headed to Haridwar.
Haridwar, an extremely holy place for Hindus, and full of pilgrims, is known for the evening ceremony called Ganja Aarti at Har Ki Pauri, and so that evening we went along the Ganges river to see the enchanting ceremony take place.
People were releasing floral floats with lamps/fire on them and incense on the river, which floated down the stream, although the flames would usually be blown out by the wind. Here people also take part in ritualistic bathing in the river Ganga. Brave, very brave. Something that shocked me about the river Ganga is just how cold it is. It is like putting your feet into icy water. Heaven knows what one must feel when their entire body is immersed in the water. We later found out that the water runs from the icy peaks of the Himalayas, and this is how it stays so cold. We took a trip to Chandi Devi Temple and got a cable car up to Mansa Devi Temple. The cable car journey made the trip worthwhile, if nothing else.
Next we arrived at Rishikesh, an hour away from Haridwar, by bus.
A place primarily known for its yoga teachings, and aptly nicknamed "the world capital of Yoga", and another very holy place for Hindus, Rishikesh is a scenic town running along and around the greener than green Ganges. When we arrived we decided to stay in an Ashram, just like most pilgrims would, to enable a more integrated and spiritual experience of Rishikesh, and looked for the spiritual community called Swarg Ashram, which we eventually found, with the help of an auto rickshaw. In order to be allowed to stay in the Ashram we were required to take a walk to the owner of the ashram and sign papers, who was extremely polite, and believed Sohaibs dodgy story that he was part Indian, not Pakistani. We even managed to convince them to let us stay in a 100 rupees a night room.
Bargain, that is about £1.30 a night for both of us. The room was basic, had a scorpion resident and a mouse we never caught...but had all that we needed. The first thing we noticed about Rishikesh is the sheer amount of yoga centres about, literally every other building in Rishikesh offers a particular style of yoga teaching, some free, and some costing a mint. We abstained from the Yoga and decided instead to see as much of the town as we could. The main attraction of Rishikesh is the two main suspension bridges connecting one half of Rishikesh to the other, Lakshman Jhula being the main one. Across from Lakshman Jhula is a huge temple that looks like a multi layered orange and white wedding cake. Inside this is floors and floors of Hindi shrines, each with a loud bell to ring, which you can hear being rung all day long. On this side of the river is the busiest, liveliest tourist area of Rishikesh, where hippies live happily isolated from modern life.
There are even hippy children here, and I did wonder whether they go to school. Here are the clothes shop selling everything like is sold in Camden, and there are tourists everywhere.
We decided to go find a motorbike to hire out, and after a little bit of searching came across a man who had a manual bike. The first day we had with the motorbike we drove out of Rishikesh into the surrounding mountains, all set along the beautiful river Ganges. Down the mountain we could see adventurous white water rafting tourists going along the surprisingly mild rapids of the river. We rode along, winding along the narrow mountain side path, bumping and bumping as we went along as the road swapped from flat to rocky within seconds. My ass was numb from the pain, and the sun was shining straight above our heads, but we persevered.
Along the way we stopped to look at the view. An hour into our journey, after a routine stop, and after you had dropped the entire bike flat onto inside, the bike refused to switched back on. You pushed and pushed on the side lever but it revved, but not to full effect. After a while we started attracting the attention of some locals. One local in a white turban style cloth around his head came over to help. He was shortly followed by others. By this time we had at least 6 onlookers assessing the situation, willing to put forward their suggestions. The first man then switched a button that must have been altered when the bike fell, and as if by magic, the bike came back to life. We thanked them the best way we could and off we went on our merry way. Next we came across a huge suspension bridge. It was down a little rough track, which Sohaib wasconvinced hecould ride the bike down. I was not so sure. So in usual sure Sohaib style he went down anyway and quickly enough you lost control of the bike and skidded it flat onto the floor.
It was stuck, no way of getting it up or down so we asked some observers for help. As he tried to pick up the bike you were burnt on the ankle by a hot rod on the bike. Eventually, with the help of an elderly observer, the bike was wheeled down to the bottom of the path and driven back up safely. We parked it up, and headed to the suspension bridge by foot. On the other side of this bridge was a desolate part of the Ganges with sandy beach. Afterwards we headed back to Rishikesh.
The moment we arrived in Rishikesh, I knew there was one place I had to see. And that was Maharishi Mahesh Yogi Ashram, the ashram the Beatles stayed in for three months back in 1968 on their spiritual visit to Rishikesh, and apparently wrote their White Album. I knew this Ashram was no longer in use, and was abandoned over a decade ago and this made it even more appealing.
We took the bike nearby and parked it up. Then we started our walk to the Ashram. Getting more and more into the quiet bush lining the outskirts of Rishikesh we found a sign for the Ashram and I got excited. Eventually we found it, and it was all bolted up, with a man at the gate saying we could only enter for 50 rupees each. Not willing to miss this opportunity we paid and went into the private grounds. The area was like the forgotten fairground of yesteryear, completely submerged and consumed by the trees, weeds plants covering what must have once been a very vibrant area of Rishikesh. It was like the ghost, it felt haunted. What appeared to be a carousel had winding roots taking it over, as well as left over buildings and meditation halls. The forest had taken over the grounds. We eventually came across the main Ashrams, some unusual looking buildings you'd only ever imagine seeing in some unusual sci-fi movies with several huge white eggs on the rooftop and beautiful flower windows on the side.
We went inside and everything was debris, except the staircases which were still in tact. Knocked down door frames, broken glass, shattered wood, crumbling walls, fragments of toilets all over the floor. It had obviously been raided by intruders. But it still maintained beauty. The flower shapes of the windows remained, as did the mosaic pattern of the floor. The setting sun shone through and created beautiful patterns within each room. The entire place had an eerie quietness about it, and we were completely alone in the building. We headed further up in the building towards the rooftop, and there stood 4 huge white eggs. There were ladders on the side of each egg, so I climbed to the top and had the most amazing view of Rishikesh I could have imagined. At the top of the egg is a hole and a ladder leading inside the egg to a pitch black room...I guess which would have been used for meditation, in complete darkness and silence. I cut myself on the way down on a shard of metal, and still have the scar to prove it.
After that we walked along the river side and stumbled across the evening ganga aarti ceremony, held at the riverside temple of Parmarth Niketan Ashram. This was by far the most beautiful ganga aarti ceremony I had attended, with worshippers dressed in orange, young boys singing and chanting. Musicians playing beautiful music and people lighting candles as the sun set. There was a long haired man who appeared to be the leader and was followed down to the river edge by fellow worshippers and took centre stage in front of the music and sang and chanted to the music. We then left Rishikesh. I wonder what happened to the scorpion we left behind?
We got the bus to the prestigious city of Chandigarh and entered below a sign that welcomed us to 'The city beautiful'.
The first planned city in India, planned by Le Corbusier is a clean city, very well planned and developed into sections, with green grass and clean streets. We found a place to stay. We then asked a rickshaw rider to take us to the Rock Garden and ended up at the Rose Garden, which we took some time to walk about, admiring the roses, obviously. Then we eventually came to the Rock Garden, an open art exhibition made of industrial and urban waste materials that had been discarded and then made into artwork by Nek Chand. Big disappointment, pile of rubbish, literally, and over hyped to the max by the guide book which described it 'like falling down a rabbit-hole into the labyrinthine interior of one man's mind.' Yeah right.. We then went to Sukhna Lake lake, a man-made lake also masterminded by Le Corbusier for the residents and visitors of Chandigarh.
We chose to ride a swan around the water. It was a hot day and peddling got us exhausted pretty quickly. We almost got stuck on the lake edge on the far edge of the lake, and tried to catch up with other ducks. It was a lot of fun. We then left Chandigarh.
After a long and windy bus ride we eventually arrived in the hill station of Shimla, capital city of Himachal Pradesh, a town surrounded by pine forests. What is impressive about Shimla is the architecture, with buildings etched into the mountainside with such skill.
We walked around the quaint British style town, which gave off a certain colonial aura, since it was once very popular with the British settlers as a town with a cool breeze when Delhi summer hit. Everywhere you walk you are met by a steep path, which became exhausting and we spent a lot of our time heading for Subway.
On our last day we chose to climb the monkey temple. At the bottom was a sign indicating our levels of fitness according to how long it would take for us to climb the temple. So the challenge was set and off we went. This route was no easy task, and we were aiming to complete it in under 30 minutes. Many obstacles lay ahead. Firstly, Sohaibs fitness levels were not quite up to scratch and so stops were required.
Next we realised we were in the presence of monkeys. Realising they were eyeing up my bag I handed it over to Sohaib for safekeeping. The monkeys were edging closer, and had jumped on the two Indian men just metres ahead of us. Then they attacked. They jumped onto the side of Sohaib, right onto my bag and would not let go. After he begged me, I kicked the monkey in the stomach which was met by severe scowling and hisses by the monkey who showed me his sharp teeth and looked extremely angry. I was scared shitless and ran. After that we eventually reached the top in 29 minutes and borrowed a stick to protect us whilst we were at the temple. If only we had got a stick when we had started the journey. We got up to the temple, removed our shoes and entered. There we were fed some seeds by some old religious man and a dot was put on our heads. We were then accompanied by a dog for the majority of our trip back down, and he was loyal in protecting us against the monkeys.
I still have monkey claw marks on my bag.
From Shimla we took a Toy Train to Kalka. This toy train is a tiny version of a normal train and runs along toy sized train tracks. It took us along the mountainside and through 103 tunnels, 87 bridges, 900 curves and 20 railway stations. The magical view alongside the mountains made the longer than necessary journey worthwhile, as we passed other hillside towns and beautiful forests and lush green valleys We arrived at Kalka and caught a train back to Delhi.
We headed back to Delhi to do some shopping, hippy Camden style and I got some henna done on my arms with mine and your names on them.
We then headed to Sri Lanka....